On January 15th of this year, it was announced that the film director, Nagisa Oshima, had passed away at the age of 81. This prompted the satellite movie channel Wowow to screen his film "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence", and I thought I would devote today's column to a review of it.
Oshima's most controversial and critically acclaimed film is the 1976 "Ai no Corrida" (Empire of the Senses), but "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" retains a special place in my heart. It had a profound effect on me when I saw it in the cinema in 1983, the year of its release. It was the inclusion of David Bowie that got me to see it, but I was also aware of Ryuichi Sakomoto (through YMO), Tom Conti and Jack Thompson (through their film work). I had never heard of Takeshi Kitano before this.
Watching this film was, in a way, my introduction to the complexities of Japanese history and culture. Despite its portrayal of the cruelty and inhumanity of the Imperial Japanese Army, it didn't put me off Japan. In fact, it had the opposite. It made me want to find out more, to find out what exactly happened, and why the characters on screen behaved they way they did.
In his book "3/11:The Fallout," Patrick Fox examined examples of what he called Revolutionary Art. In the same spirit, I would like to nominate this film, and the collection of three novellas it's taken from, "The Seed and the Sower" by Sir Laurens van der Post - as examples of Revolutionary Art.
The heart of the film is the battle of will between Australian soldier and POW Major Jack Celliers and the camp commander Captain Yonoi. Yonoi is fascinated by Yonoi the first time he sees him. There is a clear homoerotic subtext going on, but that's not the point of this review.
Yonoi is fascinated by Celliers because he shows no fear.
Despite all the attempts of the camp guards to break Celliers' spirit, he does not break. He reacts in bizarre, unexpected ways, performing acts of random bravery and kindness. In fact, at one point Yonoi shouts at him - "Are you an evil spirit?" To which Celliers replies - "Yes. One of yours, I hope."
Both Celliers and Yonoi have dark secrets in their past. Yonoi was involved in the failed military coup of February 1936, and to his lasting shame, did not share in the patriotic sacrifice of his fellow officers.
Celliers, on the other hand, has been pursued all his life by the memory of an act of betrayal. He deliberately let his younger brother suffer at the hands of school bullies, out of an act of pride. As van der Post wrote in the novella ...
I became, if you like, a haunted person. Yes, I know the meaning of ghosts ... and we who discount them do so only because we look for them in the wrong dimension.
Both Celliers and Yonoi are trying to redeem the memory of their greatest failures. Yonoi is doing so by attempting to bring order to the camp and control the POWs. Celliers is trying to redeem himself by directly opposing Yonoi and alleviating the suffering of his fellow prisoners.
This leads to the climactic scene, where Celliers single-handedly prevents the execution of Group Captain Hicksley and - at the same time - gives Yonoi a mental breakdown.
He (Celliers) said, "I'm going to stop it now. It'll be all right. But whatever happens, do nothing about me. Remember, nothing. Goodbye."
I did not have time to or mind to take in the significance of that 'goodbye' ... for as he spoke, Celliers stepped out of the ranks, his new hat at a rakish angle and the sun flashing on his mutilated badge ... Without hurry, he advanced on Yonoi.
When Yonoi opened his eyes again after his short prayer to the spirit of the sword, Celliers was barely fifteen yards away. Amazement like the shock of a head-long collision went through him ...
There is not much else to say, apart from 'see this movie'. Today, we have a nationalist Japanese government once more in power, who emphasize 'patriotism', and seem intent on an armed conflict with China. As van der Post wrote ...
I might smile and think him fanciful abut his belief that Sergeant Hara was an embodiment of a myth more than a conscious individual being, even though I had seen for myself how moon-swung Hara and his countrymen were. But that by no means was all there was to it ... the more complete truth was, they were submerged like animals, plants, insects in the succession of the hours, the movement of day into night and the months into seasons. They were subject to ... cosmic forces beyond their control ... and only at night could people so submerged in the raw elements of nature discover the night within themselves.